Ten, almost eleven, year old Winnie Foster lives in the first house on the road into town; the house is set apart and fenced off from the rest of the village and Winnie seems to echo this lonely difference. She is in the woods behind her house one day when she comes across seventeen year old Jesse Tuck and a bubbling spring that he won't allow her to drink from. In fact, her discovery of the spring is a terrible thing and when his mother Mae and older brother Miles appear, they feel they have no recourse but to take Winnie with them to their home a ways away, promising to return her the following day. Once they take her, they tell her the fantastical story of the spring. It has granted them eternal life, freezing them at the ages they were when they first drank from it eighty-seven years prior. At first Winnie thinks this is a wonderful and magical thing but as she gradually hears the stories of each of the kindly Tucks, she learns the sorrows and burdens that they live under as a result of that one thirsty day and she discovers that she herself, knowing the story of the spring, has a choice of whether to live a regular life, keeping the secret forever, or to do as Jesse asks her, to wait until she is old enough for him and then to drink of the spring herself.
There were some disturbing bits that I don't remember well from my first reading. Why the Tucks felt compelled to essentially kidnap Winnie and her moments of homesickness, fear, and despair either didn't register, were lost in the larger meaning of the book, or were just casually accepted as what needed to happen to move the plot along when I read it so long ago. Now as an adult, they were definitely more horrifying to me, snagging my attention in ways that they certainly didn't back then. The stranger who follows the Tucks is eminently more ominous than he was on my first reading. But the gorgeous writing and the beautiful thoughts behind the story also sharpened in this most recent reading. And Babbitt is a gorgeous writer. She manages to fully develop all of her characters in this not very long, mostly quiet, and introspective novel. There are just enough moments of action in the plot to balance out the gently imparted moral of the tale and the pervading sadness of the Tuck family's lives. The novel predates much of today's technology, and even the technology of the 70s when it was published, but there's a timeless, elegant feel to the story. I remember crying over the perfect ending so many years ago and, recognizing even more nuances now, I cried over it again at this reading. Poignant, richly imagined, and beautiful, this is one children's novel I will never give up.